Aspen Times Weekly: Show Time!
“READY FOR the real stuff?” exclaims a chef in a thick Italian accent as we approach the display table. On it is his country’s flag as represented by native ingredients: arugula, soft white cheese, and thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma. Hands moving fast, he layers each ingredient on top of a circular Riccioni Piadina flatbread warming on a portable griddle. “We make two versions of flatbread with extra-virgin olive oil—one gluten-free with rice flour—no preservatives, all-natural… frozen it lasts 12 months.”
Soon he hands out slices of the Neapolitan creation: chewy, creamy, salty, slightly spicy, and with faintly crisp edges, it’s an instant hit.
“It’s just a tortilla, but it will replace a typical Mexican tortilla with a natural, healthy product,” says Talo Gutierrez, chef of the Dancing Bear in Aspen and my fearless leader at the annual Shamrock Foods Expo in Denver. “No chef [makes] tortillas…You have to come up with new stuff.”
Gutierrez is here with a game plan: scout high-end ingredients to serve discerning VIP guests at the private residence club. And he’s invited me to wander with him around the expo, which draws hundreds of chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors, brokers, buyers, manufacturers, importers, and other folks in the foodservice industry to discover new products distributed by Shamrock Foods Company—the seventh largest supplier in the U.S., founded as an Arizona dairy in 1922 and now in Colorado, New Mexico, and Southern California while still family-owned—and discuss trends and technologies.
We start in Shamrock’s Specialty Foods section, where 33 purveyors proffer samples of high-end edibles such as cheese, pasta, chocolate, tea, and vinegar. Having attended the show briefly yesterday, Gutierrez has a few key items in mind for purchase.
First up: Sabatino Tartufi Truffle Zest. A rep grins and taps a glass jar to deposit a tiny pile of brown fluff into my open palm. I lick it…and I get why Gutierrez is excited. Stemming from a need to add authentic truffle flavor without excess salt, the zest blends finely grated Italian tubers with carob powder for a slightly sweet, unique flavor profile that is intensely truffley. Plus it’s more economical than shaving imported European truffles over a dish: just $25 for 5.3 ounces, whereas the same amount of pure black truffle might cost about $170 currently.
“You didn’t know Shamrock had all this stuff did ya?” asks director of produce and specility products C Marden, who sourced 26 new items for the Specialty area. “It’s very unusual that the specialty foods category would be inside a broad-line distributor. Specialty, and our in-house Gold Canyon Meat Co., is what sets us apart from the competition.”
Despite being one of the company’s fast-growing segments, Specialty Foods comprises just a fraction of expo real estate. However, it serves as a good-impression portal to the main arena, home to conventional foodservice categories: meat, seafood, grocery, produce, kitchen tools and chemicals, and pre-prepared appetizers, desserts, and baked goods. International flavors appear, too: Italian, Latin American, and Pacific Rim—the latter, with nine vendors, is the largest representation of any Shamrock show compared to other markets, George says.
After inspecting thick slabs of Himalayan salt that will lend an instant wow-factor to crudité platters or seared fish, I follow Gutierrez and our Shamrock escort, marketing director Emily George, past a guy twirling pasta in a giant wheel of Piave cheese.
We continue through the Culinary Theater (celebrity chefs and former Top Chef contestants Fabio Viviani and Antonia Lofaso showcased recipes using exclusive Shamrock products yesterday) and into the vast, fluorescent-lit main floor. It’s like any other convention scene, abuzz with motor-mouthed company reps and curious attendees pawing at freebies—scented with the intoxicating aromas of baked sugar and roasted meat.
Somewhere between the front entrance and a purveyor of vacuum-sealed whole suckling pigs at the room’s far end, I understand why George insists on chaperoning us at all times, ostensibly to keep us “on message”: There are a lot of prepackaged foods and food-like substances on display. For every artisan in Specialty Foods, there are at least a handful of big-name corporations here, including Nestlé, Tyson, General Mills, KraftHeinz, and PepsiCo, hawking everything from bottled coffee to mayonnaise.
“The whole concept of the expo goes a little bit against the concept of a chef,” Gutierrez whispers, as I pop a bite-size beef Wellington appetizer into my mouth. “It’s hard to see chefs looking for premade products, to see how we’re losing that creativity: getting your hands dirty, making dough, filling it. This is a lot cheaper. But it makes chefs lazy.”
Despite such preponderance of prepackaging, Gutierrez confirms that the event is a success if he returns to work with just a few novel ingredients and fresh ideas (suckling pig roasted in a fire pit at a private catering gig? Jackpot!).
“You can’t miss the show,” George enthuses. “It’s the only place you can sample literally hundreds of SKUs—products—get a sense of what we’re doing as a company, and experience celebrity chefs and seminars.” Purchasers also receive discounts on orders placed during the pre-holiday shipping period simply for showing up to the conference.
Next we sample micro-greens grown by Infinite Harvest, an indoor vertical hydroponic farm that contracted with Shamrock recently. Gutierrez tastes a pinch of peppery micro-mustard and nods his head, impressed. We entertain the spiel—the Lakewood, Colo., operation uses 90 percent less water than conventional methods, plants non-GMO seed, and, while lacking official certification, is “virtually organic.” For chefs who won’t receive local CSA boxes until spring, it’s a game-changer.
“To be able to provide living lettuce during the winter season? That’s awesome,” says Meat & Cheese executive chef David Wang, who attended the expo with restaurant owner Wendy Mitchell. “What do we have available for us during these next six months when growing season is nonexistent? We’re so stoked to have fresh greens (including butter lettuce for the Bo Ssam board) and nice sprouts in the middle of winter.”
Troy Selby, chef-owner of 520 Grill in Aspen, arrived with his own agenda: “Find new ideas and ways to save money,” he says. A manila envelope in his hand is scribbled with a grocery list: beef, bison, bacon, chicken breast options, salmon, tuna, and elk, among 20-plus items. At least two seminars held during the expo might relate to the latter: Restaurant Math 101 and Millennials and Your Future Workforce.
“It’s not about ready-prepared foods; we walked straight past that entire middle section,” Wang recalls. Instead, he relished the opportunity to “meet purveyors and put a face to the product. We did see awesome meats, and talked to Creekstone Farms, whom we’ll be using heavily, and Maple Leaf Farms (we use their duck for confit).”
Partial to bold Asian flavors, Wang also spent quality time in the extensive Pacific Rim section. “Some of them I was able to talk to them in Chinese,” he says, adding that he tasted soups, toppings, and — nervous gasp — new noodles for ramen at Meat & Cheese and dan dan at Hooch. A jaunt to the (admittedly small) produce section inspired Wang to source kabocha squash — anything but butternut! — for a new side dish as well.
“We try to push it a little bit, and going to these shows allows us to see what we can play with,” he says. “Shamrock has such a large inventory—there’s no possible way I could get an updated inventory sheet at a moment’s request.”
Another draw for chefs is having a personal shopper at hand. “Our Shamrock rep, Brian, knows our volume,” Wang says. “He guided us through the entire exhibit. Coming up on our two-year anniversary [on Oct. 17], we can negotiate and convince a vendor to work with us. We’re not about to fizzle out.”
Having lapped the expo once, Gutierrez and I part ways with George and seek respite from the cacophony in the empty theatre. Suddenly a lady voice booms over the loudspeaker: Attention Shamrock Foods Customers! In five minutes join us in the Family Brands area at the entrance to the main show floor. It’s a demo you won’t want to miss!
Gutierrez and I exchange a weary glance: It’s time to hit the road back to Aspen.
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